Thursday, January 31, 2013

My Grand Circle Tour of the American Southwest

     I first saw this part of the United States on a whim on my way out to California in 2010.  It was love at first sight.  Since the very moment that I continued on through the Mojave Desert and away from the Southwest, I knew that I had to come back one day.  And just coming back wouldn’t be good enough; I had to come back and see everything I possibly could.

     The idea for a trip like this wasn’t anything original.  People have been doing it for over 100 years, flocking out to the Colorado Plateau, which comprises of the most dense series of National Parks and Monuments in our country, all of them revolving around the Grand Canyon, which is why it is often referred to as The Grand Circle Tour

     The reason why I’ve titled this blog my trip is because there are official Grand Circle Tours that you can follow along with use of a guide or brochure.  But if you know anything about me, you know that I like to do things my own way.  

     I think that the word “epic” is used too liberally.  I have probably only used that word to describe one aspect of my life: the road trips I take.  This one specifically:  5 weeks on the road, 6 thousand miles, two separate seasons (Spring and Fall), 150 miles of hiking, 12 National Parks, 60 sunrises and sunsets, and countless hours in a tent under the stars.

     It took me about a year to plan and save, and there are still places that I didn’t have the time or money for.  There is so much to explore and enjoy here.  I believe that every American should experience a quintessential journey out West; it changes you, but in an unusual and excellent way.

     Many of these places have become sacred to me.  When I’m having a dark day, I sink back into my memories and find peace in the time I spent here.  

     Brett, who has been along with me on almost all of these trips, has witnessed first-hand how passionate and exited that I get about them.  He once told me that I “love everything”.  But that isn’t true.  It’s just that the things I love mean everything to me.  Beauty.  Nature.  The True World.  I let them encompass my world, and it helps to keep the bad out.

     I hope to return here for the rest of my life.  Alone, with my love, or with my children if I have them.  I hope I’m one of those stereotypical parents that you’ve heard about, dragging their kids on long road trips in the Summer, with a cooler and a tent and a pack of cards.  Even when I’m old and gray, too old to drive, I’ll take a bus or join one of those prepared Grand Circle Tours.  Maybe I’ll have some nice young person push my wheelchair around and I’ll get to view the sights with tired old eyes.  I’ll consider myself lucky if I live long and prosperous enough to do that.  

     I hope I’m always broke in the best way, the way that means I spent all my money on experiences and not things.  I hope one day my descriptions and photographs inspire others to get on the road and enjoy the beauty of these landscapes.  And as long as I’m on the subject of dreams, my greatest one is to someday be a professional photographer.

     I have learned that there is so much more to being a landscape photographer than snapping a photo of something beautiful.  When you strip away every other intricate aspect of what goes into each photograph taken, I suppose that is what you could use as a definition, but it’s selling the artist short.

     Being a landscape photographer is not easy.  If the viewer likes the final product, whether its on the internet or in a calendar or up in a gallery, it’s because they are witnessing a piece of the photographer’s mind.  A landscape photographer’s goal is to encapsulate one sliver of an outdoor experience in a way that does justice to the natural world, while at the same time emanating their own emotions through it.  

     A vast number of people attribute a good landscape to luck.  This does happen, but 99 percent of the time, a landscape photographer makes their own luck.  They pass a field on their way to work and think to themselves, that tree would look perfect during the setting sunlight this afternoon, I’ll come back around 5:15.  The reason why they know the sun sets at 5:15 that day is because they’re in constant reference to the best-lit hours of the day, no matter what season or time of year.  Light is their providence; they are ruled by it.  They are also always watching the sky and checking the weather.  There is no end to the study of light.  

     They get up at 4 in the morning and go to bed at midnight,  they sleep during the hottest parts of the day when the sun is directly overhead and making for unpleasant contrasts.  They set up their tripods with shaking hands on the edges of cliffs, they balance themselves in rushing water, they trudge through snow, they stand on frozen lakes with -10 degree windchill, they sit in one spot for hours to await the sight of some rare animal or slice of isolated light.  They sit in a shaking car while a storm rages around them, waiting for the sun to burst through, hoping for a rainbow, their photograph of it their personal pot of gold.  They track the Northern Lights and meteor showers.  They carry heavy equipment across wild terrain in the scorching desert.

     A landscape photographer forgoes all vanity, a plethora of physical comforts, and at times even a bit of good judgement.  They look beyond the beaten path to bring you back a gem, or a moment stopped in time.  They have an undying faith in the natural world and what it provides.  Their obsession is not with beauty but what makes the world beautiful, or interesting, or terrifying.  They suffer every moment they’re not in the field, and even sometimes when they are, when the moment is too great to capture and the pressures are on.

     A landscape photographer makes their own luck, “creates for one’s soul, applies with the mind” [1], and lets nature’s grace do the rest.  And though these are the best moments of life, they can also be the most grievous.   Everything comes with a price; every place I take a good photograph, I leave behind a piece of my heart.

     Here is my trip laid out as simply as possible with some of my favorite pictures.  Each place is listed, and if you’re interested in reading more about the specifics, I’ve added a link within the captions.

*   *   *

     Sit in the middle of four states at once.  The Four Corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.  

     Explore an old trading post and get a look at some sweet old cars at Twin Rocks, Highway 191, Utah.

     Ancient rivers carved these 3 enormous arches at Natural Bridges National Monument.  This is also one of the few International Dark Sky parks in the US, which means you'll be able to view the night sky almost as clear and perfect as it was before any light pollution entered the atmosphere.

     Make the steep, 1/2 mile climb up to Wilson Arch, just off Highway 191, South of Moab, Utah.  

 Take the scenic route Highway 128 next to the Colorado River on your way to Moab, Utah.

     Choose from the dozens of natural sandstone arches that make up Arches National Park, but don't miss the Delicate Arch at sunset.  People come from all over the world to see it.  View the milky way over Park Avenue.

     Get a real taste of the Old West in the abandoned railroad ghost-town of Cisco, Utah.

     Watch the sunrise through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, see the world-renowned "Star" burst through the arch, and feel the sun spread its warmth over the Island in the Sky.

     Climb over some of the most rugged and untouched terrain in the lower 48 at Capitol Reef National Park.

     If you are missing green leaves and waving grasses, make a stop under the birch trees in the higher elevations of Utah in Dixie National Forest.

     There are so many things to do within the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  It is worth an entire trip in itself.  View the multi-layered rock as you enjoy a drive past its vermillion cliffs.

     American Scenic Byway 12 in Utah will take you through some of the most incredible and volatile scenery that you will ever experience on a single road.

     Bryce Canyon National Park, a mysterious land of hoodoos and vibrant colors.  Take a walk through a forest of ancient Douglas Firs, past rocks that seem to be standing only from the force of some unseeable magic, or through a slot canyon.  Admire the bluest sky set against orange rock.  Find the Tropic Ditch, a beautiful creek with sets of cascades, created by the force of pioneering back in the 1800's.

     Stand alongside the Virgin River and feel the power of the mountains towering over you inside of Zion National Park.  Find the Emerald Pools and see why Zion is considered a true oasis.

     As you meander through bright red and orange rock, you'll soon realize that the Valley of Fire State Park  in Nevada, lives up to its name.

     On the West side of the Grand Canyon, take the 8 mile hike through Havasu Canyon, which leads to the Native American village of Supai, Arizona.  The only way to get to this stunning piece of land is by foot, horse, or helicopter.  Once there, hike another 2-3 miles to the gorgeous splendor that is Havasu and Mooney Falls.  This is a true Oasis in the middle of the Grand Canyon, and is generally referred to as Heaven-on-Earth.

     On your way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, make a stop at Lee's Ferry to view the Colorado River innocently weaving through a gorge, and the dual bridges that cross the gap.   

     The Grand Canyon National Park is something that every American, if not every person possible, should see.  One of the 7 Natural Wonders of the world, its beauty and sheer size will knock your senses wild.  Impossible to capture justly in a photograph or in words, stay long enough to view a sunset, the stars at night, and the first light of a new day.  Nothing can compare to the Grand Canyon.

     The power of man bending nature to his will is what has made possible the thriving city of Page, Arizona.  Lake Powell is created by the Powell Dam, which stops up the Colorado River.  The desert canyon filled with water looks unnaturally but stunningly beautiful.

     Horseshoe Bend is located just outside of Page, Arizona.  A mile-long hike through heavy sand leads you to the edge of a jagged cliff.  At the bottom of the straight, 1 thousand foot drop, the Colorado River curves around a bend, nearly making a full circle.

     The Antelope Canyons are also located just outside of Page, and are owned by the Navajo Natives.  Explore the lesser known and quieter of the two, Lower Antelope Canyon.  These are two of the most famous slot-canyons in the world, best known for the way the light makes the canyon walls look like colorful waves.

     Drive down a lonely stretch of old Route 66, and be surprised by the uniqueness of Petrified Forest National Park.  Watch the sand turn blue as the sun goes down, see it glitter with the gems of petrified wood, watch the mesas turn purple as last light of day filters from the sky.

     Experience a place where time stands still, Canyon De Chelly National Monument.  Hike down to the White House Ruins, Anasazi cliff dwellings that are centuries old, and catch an unforgettable sunrise over Spider Rock, an 800 foot spire that stands freely upon the quiet canyon floor.

     Look across the vast desert to a quintessential view of the Southwest, Monument Valley, owned and kept up by the Navajo Native Americans.  If the scene feels familiar, it's because you've seen it in several Old Western movies, many of them starring John Wayne.  Witness a gorgeous sunset changing the light on the rock monoliths that are all that remains of an ancient plateau.  Watch a moonrise over The Mittens. 

... And that is all.  For now.  

This is me at Horseshoe Bend.

[1] Ansel Adams stated that a photographer should always "Create for one's soul, apply with the mind."